It has been almost one year since the Sandy Hook school shooting that rocked the nation last December.
As demolition crews this week razed the school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 1st graders and six employees were killed by a 20-year-old gunman, grassroots community organizers have been taking to the streets in Washington State with petitions for new gun-reform legislation, Initiative 594, which community leaders hope will appear on the fall 2014 ballot.
I-594 would require background checks for online sales and private transactions, such as those that occur at gun shows. The checks would be conducted at federally licensed firearm dealers, where potential buyers must already undergo such scrutiny before purchasing a new weapon.
Helping to lead the way for the I-594 campaign is Cheryl Stumbo, a former marketing director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, who filed the motion with the secretary of state. Stumbo was one of five women wounded during the 2006 shooting at the Federation’s offices. One woman, Pamela Waechter, died in the attack.
Stumbo now works with the non-profit group Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility as one of its faith organizers.
“We go out and help different organizations work with their social justice congregation members and faith leaders getting those congregations activated around this issue,” she told JTNews.
Because of the divisive nature of this issue, WAAGR decided to dedicate organizers to the faith community.
“We help support their efforts because [the faith communities] support this issue of gun responsibility and background checks,” Stumbo said.
Stumbo did not immediately gravitate toward gun-reform activism. Even after physically healing from the incident at the Jewish Federation, she continued to struggle with the winding path of emotional recovery.
“Whenever I saw anything on the news [about the shooting] I would feel a little destroyed for a few days or a week,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I wanted to do something about it.”
Once she made that decision, it became easier for Stumbo to become proactive in the gun-reform movement in Washington State. “I went down to Olympia and testified about the bill that [State Rep. Jamie Peterson (D–43rd)] was trying to advance for background checks in the state,” Stumbo said. “That’s when I met Zach Silk.”
As campaign director for Washington United for Marriage, which successfully worked to pass the referendum last year to uphold same-sex marriage, Silk had moved on to the group Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility to lead the initiative campaign for gun responsibility. Working closely with Silk was Zach Carstensen, the director of government relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation.
“This community, this Federation has had firsthand experience with gun violence,” Carstensen said. “At the most basic level, that is the reason why this Jewish Federation cares so much about this issue.”
Carstensen emphasized the mandate that Federation leadership has issued over the years since the shooting to pave the way for significant, impactful gun reform. He points out that the Federation has supported all manner of policy solutions — mapping public schools and religious schools, increased security funding for vulnerable institutions, and in particular, improving the mental health system in the state.
Alongside the efforts of the WAAGR, the Federation continues to seek comprehensive solutions to gun reform.
“Fifteen Jewish organizations have endorsed the need to have universal background checks,” Carstensen said. “We’re going to keep growing that list, follow every lead and every possibility until we make a change in the state.”
Another key player in this effort, Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, has been working with his congregation, Seattle’s Jewish community, and the faith community at large toward gun responsibility education and reform.
“This has been a long-standing concern, especially with the Reform Judaism movement,” Weiner said. “The real catalyst was the Connecticut shooting.”
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Weiner and other Seattle clergy banded together and made a pledge to work toward making a difference with gun reform.
“Washington is at the forefront,” Weiner said. “Our state has the opportunity to again lead the way in sensible social policy.”
On the other side of the coin is the Second Amendment Foundation, whose headquarters in Bellevue are working toward an initiative of their own, Initiative 591.
I-591 was written this past spring by Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.
The two key points I-591 address are the confiscation of guns or other firearms from citizens without due process by government agents and that government agencies requiring background checks on the recipient of a firearm should be illegal unless those checks meet a uniform national standard.
Dave Workman, communications director for Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said I-591 is a much simpler initiative than 594.
“If I wanted to buy a firearm in Bellevue or Spokane or Walla Walla, it should be no different than any background check in another city in the United States,” Workman told JTNews. “There’s no reason to add a bunch of hoops for people to jump through.” Currently, no uniform national standard for background checks exists, but Workman believes there should be.
“Why do you want to make it more difficult to exercise a fundamental civil right?” he asked.
Both initiatives will ramp up their efforts to meet the January 3, 2014 deadline for gathering the 246,372 required valid signatures for the initiative to appear on next fall’s ballot. Stumbo said WAAGR’s goal is to have all of its signatures by December 14, the anniversary date of the Sandy Hook massacre.